The biggest risks to open government data are political


U.S. Capitol at dusk, March 2017. Credit: Alexander B. Howard

Over the past two months, Sunlight has been quietly tracking whether open government data has been removed from the Internet under the Trump administration, responding to widespread fears of its removal.

We joined the Transparency Caucus in Congress this winter to talk about bipartisan efforts to restore public trust and the importance of preserving open government data. You can watch the event in the video embedded below:

We also are supporting efforts like DataRefuge and participated in them. You can watch our panel discussion on open data from the Georgetown Library from February in the video embedded below:

We have received dozens of media inquiries and emails from the public about the present and future of open government data since last year’s election. The ways that the Trump administration could mess with government data remains the same: budget cuts that could reduce quality, frequency of release or even collection, and purposeful alteration or miscommunication of research or statistical information.

Despite the fears that it would become “open season on open data” in the United States, however, we’ve been pleased to have only reported the removal of animal welfare data during that time period.

While Obama-era White House visitor records were made less accessible when the National Archives took over their maintenance, the data itself remains available for download — not “deleted” as some media reports suggested.

That does not mean that we or the public should be complacent about the continued availability of data online or the future of open government in the Trump administration. This White House’s actions and silence about transparency norms are raising fears. Instead of defending the essential role of journalism in a democracy, the president has attacked and attempted to delegitimize the American free press.

When asked about open government, the Trump administration has declined to comment. There hasn’t been a public statement about what open government means to this administration or making taxpayer-funded information open and accessible to the public online, despite that fundamentally good idea enjoying support from bipartisan majorities in Congress.

While we wish that the National Archives, the White House and Congress were clearly communicating to the public that open government data isn’t going anywhere, universities and libraries stepping up to ensure the public retains access to public information represent a strong bulwark against any reductions in our national knowledge commons.

We see the greatest risk to open government data as political, not technical, as is true with broader threats to democracy around the world. Consider:

The future of open government data is in your hands — and those of our elected representatives in Congress, who have the power of the purse. As with other issues that are fundamental to our democracy, what happens next will depend upon all of us to protect and defend the data. We’ve done it together before. We’ll be with you in the days and weeks ahead.